King Ccounty forest canopy (photo from crawford.tardigrade.net)

King Ccounty forest canopy (photo from crawford.tardigrade.net)

On Monday, September 16, the Seattle City Council and King County Council gave final approval to an agreement that will protect up to 25,000 acres of farm and forest land by transferring development rights into the City of Seattle. The City, in turn, will receive an estimated $17 million to construct infrastructure for the new development. The agreement, which is the result of four years of work and negotiations, is the first implementation of the Landscape Conservation and Local Infrastructure Program (LCLIP), which was developed by Forterra and adopted by the legislature in 2011.

Under the program, developers are required to buy 800 ‘urban density credits’ at a cost of $18 million in order to build the full amount of housing and office space allowed under new zoning. This money, in turn, is used to buy the right to develop from farmers and forest land owners, meaning that the land will remain in food production or forest cover forever. Projections are that this program will preserve 2,000 acres of farmland and 23,000 acres of forests.

The use of a transfer of development rights (TDR) program is not new; the City has used this concept to preserve historic buildings, for example, and there was a pilot program in the early 2000’s that protected farmland. That program, however, had neither the scope nor the comprehensive framework that LCLIP provides.

I persuaded the City Council to start the process that led to the current program in 2009, when I drafted and the Council approved Resolution 31147, calling for the City and County to begin negotiations to develop an agreement. As it became clear that state legislation was needed to make this program work most effectively, Forterra joined with local governments to design and seek the new legislative authorization, which was passed in 2011. The last two years have been devoted to securing the needed approvals on the regional level, negotiating the terms of the agreement, and finding the place in Seattle where density credits could be deployed most effectively.

The South Lake Union rezone was quickly identified as the ideal vehicle for doing this. The City can impose new requirements like this on property owners when we are also creating new opportunities for them to develop. The rezone, by opening up the possibility of adding up to 12,000 new residential units and significant amounts of new commercial space, created both a clear legal opportunity and the prospect of rapid implementation. I joined Mayor McGinn in the summer of 2012 in proposing that we include LCLIP in the rezone legislation, which was ultimately approved this May.

In exchange for Seattle accepting these rural development rights, King County will partner with the City on infrastructure investments that will support the new growth and increased density by sharing 17.4% of the new property tax revenues generated by the development. The City will, in turn, invest the estimated $17 million in revenues in parks, transportation improvements, and a South Lake Union Community Center.

The City Council actually approved three pieces of legislation on Monday. The first adopted the agreement with the County, while the other two delineated the area that the improvements will be made in and the process that the City will use to make final decisions on them. As part of the South Lake Union rezone, I sponsored a resolution outlining criteria to ensure that these investments will go through a Race and Social Justice screen as part of this process, to ensure that they will serve the entire community.

Creating this program is a great example of how important it is to work together as a region, and to have the patience and persistence to hammer out the details of what ultimately became a win-win-win-win-win result. The City and County get to preserve farms and forests; the City gets funds for infrastructure; farmers and forest land owners get to keep their land in their preferred use, and are compensated for giving up their financial opportunities; developers get to build and have the amenities that will make their buildings more profitable; and the neighborhood gets new housing, new jobs, and new transportation and recreational investments.

The region protects our local farms and preserves our foodshed, conserving farmland for ourselves and for future generations. We all get increased access to healthy foods, while helping farmers make a living and survive financially. Monday was a great day for everyone!